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New Zealand: Part 4
Northland: Bay of Islands and Hokianga Bay
By Georgette Diamandis
From Wellington, I flew Air New Zealand into Keri Keri near the top of the North Island. Northland is known as the winterless north; it's tropical and is a popular boating spot for locals and tourists alike. This is also where most of the indigenous people of New Zealand live and I was looking forward to two highly recommended Maori tours. I picked up my bag from the outside bag carousel and then my rental car from the one airport desk.
WAITANGA TREATY GROUNDS
I drove through the town of Keri Keri, full of art galleries and surf shops and headed south toward the bay to the Waitanga Treaty Grounds. Called the birthplace of New Zealand, this is where an agreement was made between the Maori chiefs of the region and the new white settlers in 1840. It is considered historic but still controversial amongst the Maoris. New Zealand is working towards remedying hard feelings by recently making Maori an official language and paying tribes for confiscation of lands in the past. I strolled on the vast, beautifully maintained grounds that roll out onto the Bay of Islands and visited the old house where the treaty was signed. Also here is an extraordinary carved marai (meetinghouse) and a huge, beautifully preserved waka (canoe) requiring 76 paddlers, carved by local Maori in 1940. Lunch at the Waikokopu Cafˇ was very good.
MY NATIVE COUSIN
Here I met Hone from Waka Taiamai Heritage Tours. We had lunch outside at the cafˇ and then left the grounds to his sacred space for a tour of his marai. He invited me to participate in the traditional welcoming ritual. I felt honored to be included in the ancient customs of his ancestors and enjoyed listening to Hone speak in his Maori tongue. He explained to me that his tattoos, which were symbols, were the Maori written language and that the Maori perspective of the world is very different from our modern world's perspective. His grandson performed a haka, a threatening war dance to scare off potential dangers to the tribe (made famous by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks), and ended with the offering of a leaf (olive branch). His wife sang a beautiful Maori greeting and typical of Maori people, I was invited into their home. Since I experienced the Maori culture, I understood it better than if I had just toured the Waitanga Treaty Grounds. His nine-year-old grandson impressed me by reciting their lineage back 500 years in Maori, while Hone translated. Hone also does tours in his waka and his grandfather had been one of the carvers of the waka at the Waitanga Treaty Grounds. Visit Waka Taiamai Heritage Tours for more information.
THROUGH THE ROCK HOLE TO THE HELL HOLE
That night, I stayed at the Waterfront in Paihia, a luxury modern apartment overlooking the Bay of Islands. Everything is state of the art electronic. It was a perfect location for walking to the pier the next morning to do a Dolphin Discovery Tour. I was signed up to swim with the dolphins, which would have been crazy because it was winter and the water was cold. Unfortunately, we didn't spot them and were offered a free trip. Touring the Bay of Islands is an absolute must. It costs $75NZ for a four-hour ride in the covered high-speed catamaran and there's an extra $30 charge if you swim. Our skilled captain actually went through the famous "hole in the rock", an opening not much bigger than the large boat! The rock formations are really out of this world. The boat stopped at historic Russell, once known as the "hell hole of the Pacific" due to the drinking and brothels that were there for whalers in the 1800s. Now, it is a quaint town, reminiscent of a small Nantucket. I walked around the town, had lunch at the Waterfront Cafˇ, and caught a ferry for $6 back to Paihia. Russell is a real contrast to touristy and modern Paihia. Russell hosts a "birdman race" in July; flying off the dock is a popular and crazy thing New Zealanders like to do.
THE WEST COAST
The next day I drove across the island to the west coast to Opononi. I was headed to the Copthorne Hotel, a grand old hotel right on the Hokianga Harbor. My room overlooked the beach and the vacant sand dunes across the primitive harbor. The hotel is booked for summer months in advance www.milleniumhotels.co.nz. Dinner at the hotel was green-lipped mussels, scallops, and prawns -- delicious! Next, I was off to a three-hour night walk in the Waipua forest to view the last remaining ancient kauri trees with Maori guides Tawhiri, pronounced "Taffety" and Wiremu, or "Billy". We walked deep into the mystical forest as our guides sang Maori songs, entertained us with Maori legends and made us hot chocolate. When we finally arrived at our destination of Tane Mahuta -- The Lord of the Forest -- we were all silent, in awe of the magnificent 2,000-year-old kauri tree that is 40 meters in diameter. Lonely Planet rated the tour as a "must-do" global experience. Footprints provides headlamps and large umbrellas; you need to wear waterproof shoes as the tour is in the rainforest. We also saw The Father of the Forest, which was not as tall as Tane Mahuta, but was 4,000 years old!
SOUTH TO AUCKLAND
I drove through the Waipua forest on my way down to Auckland, stopping at the Kauri Museum in Matakohe to learn why the kauri trees were so important to the pioneers of early New Zealand. The kauri were cut down for timber for sailing masts and the sap "gum" was used for varnish. Luckily, some of the giants were too big to take down. Now they are protected and it is illegal to harvest them.
Heading down Route 12 to Auckland, I stopped at Sahara, an innovative cafˇ located in an old Bank of New Zealand building. The ambiance is funky with antiques and large nude paintings. The food is home cooked and the coffee divine, a perfect place to stop on my three-hour drive down to Auckland. I treasured my last bit of New Zealand's countryside, with the unusual land masses of old volcanoes, grazing land for sheep and kumara (sweet potato) farms. The peacefulness of the geography, the spirituality of the Maoris and even the kauri trees had left me in a state of bliss, ready for my last adventure in the cosmopolitan City of Sails.
Auckland is located on the west coast, about a third of the way down the North Island. Surrounded by water on almost all sides, with a constant wind, it's no wonder Waitemata Bay was chosen as the site of the 2003 America's Cup. Surprising to me was that just outside the city are the amazingly primeval and lush Waitakere ranges, which spill down to a surfer's paradise, the west coast beaches of Piha and Karekare.
Staying at the Westin Hotel, less than a year old on Lighter Quay and a stone's throw from the waterfront, was an extraordinary experience in itself. Many rooms have a harbor view and balconies, which provide fresh air, very important for New Zealanders. The lobby is chic, modern and decorated with Maori treasures. Its Q Restaurant has back-lit 75,000-year-old onyx marble as a backdrop where breakfast and dinner are served. My seafood risotto was gorgeous, but since it was the night of the important rugby game between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South African Springboks, I ate my dinner in front of the telly in my elegant room. Now a confirmed rugby fan, I even took pictures of the players on my TV screen! The next morning, I headed to Senses Spa on the first floor, which specializes in Thai massage. I was shocked at how powerful the petite Thai therapist was. The pure ginger tea was calming and the steam room, sauna and pool, were a welcome sanctuary. I enjoyed a latte at Toast Cafˇ, also on the first floor and learned about Auckland from the bubbly manager, Kaien.
OUT AND ABOUT
Since my time was limited, I took an expensive cab ride to view the shopping streets. Unimpressed, I later discovered that locals shop in the beautiful suburbs of Newmarket and Ponsonby. I walked out of the hotel onto the promenade along the waterfront to sail on an America's Cup yacht with Sail New Zealand where I actually got the chance to skipper! Intimidated at first by the mostly male participants, I had a blast, met friendly international tourists and loved the view of the city from Waitemata Bay. Every visitor to Auckland has to visit the Skytower. It's 328 meters tall and offers panoramic views. You can have lunch or even bungee jump off of it! Afraid of heights, I could barely look out of it, but the hotel has a notable restaurant, Dine by Peter Gordon, where I finally had New Zealand lamb, which was wonderfully grilled. The contemporary restaurant is designed by the renowned Tom Skyring, the same designer of Q restaurant at the Westin.
Before I headed out to the bush, I did yet another Maori tour with Prince from Tamaki Hikoi; you can see Prince when you click on Maori Tourism. For $80NZ you can learn about the Maori history of Auckland and stroll on Mount Eden, which has unbelievable views of Waitemata Bay, the city and the Waitakere mountain range. I saw an ancient volcano and a Pa, a Maori fortress. Prince is a doll and at the end of the tour we had tea with his pakeha (Non-Maori New Zealander) wife at the visitor's center and even met his dog. Prince is a member of the Ngati Whatua -- Notty Fatua tribe of 7,000. He told me about the offerings that were burnt in the base of the volcano for the gods. He said that for Maori, welcoming is so important and that criticism strips you of your mana (power). It was a lovely walk, even in the rain on the cool winter day. I had made some new friends. My final tour was the Bush and Beach Wilderness Experience, where I was whisked away in a Land Rover to the Waitakere mountain ranges and Piha beach, only 30 minutes from downtown and a world apart. They offer a variety of tours; this one was five hours for $125NZ. We stopped at the Arataki Nature Center to get a view of the beautiful coastline from a treehouse. Then we walked through the forest of the prehistoric tree ferns and, yes, kauri trees. It was astounding to be back in the forest so close to the city. We drove down to Piha Beach, which has black sand and the imposing Lion Rock, a strange but climbable rock formation. Tasman Sea was powerful and dotted with surfers in wetsuits. It has claimed unwary and inexperienced tourists, so be careful if you swim here.
I did a lot of tours over the course of my visit and learned so much from being with locals who shared their knowledge with me; this magnified my enjoyment of the 10-day trip. Although it was winter during my stay, the sun had come out and warmed my body the same way the people of New Zealand had warmed my soul. It was time for me to leave this magical place and although it is on the other side of the planet from my home, Air New Zealand makes it easy to return!
VIDEO Check out my New Zealand video, plus this Waka Taia-Mai Tours Video.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hi, I am Georgette, a writer and artist (here's my website) based in Connecticut. I am also Johnny Jet’s older sister, who quite possibly ignited his first spark of interest in traveling to exotic places, when at the impressionable age of 14, he saw my trip to Australia last three years! Whether skiing in the mountains, snorkeling in the tropics, or exploring faraway cities, I am always game for traveling and the privilege of writing for my baby brother's website JohnnyJet.com. Of course, coming home to my husband Cam, our dog Baci, and three cats - Ace, Arrow and Wizard - is great, too!
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Note: This trip was sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.
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